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What must I expect as a physics PhD student?

  1. Jan 28, 2016 #1
    I am starting to do my PhD in a few months and I am curious as to what a PhD student actually looks like. It's not like I have never observed how a PhD student live their life as during my master I have been engaged in some research activities where I was required to work with some PhDs as a team. The thing is, I only know how they are doing while in the lab, I never asked personally to them how their life outside university/lab goes on. I read in some online articles, that the stage of PhD for natural science students in general are often depicted as a somewhat chaotic, unordered kind of life. Typically they will take as examples, the lack of free weekends, worsening relationship with girl/boyfriend, little time for travelling, decreasing awareness of self appearance in front of others, and some others. What bothers me is that, those activities are indeed not among my lifestyle to begin with: I don't have girlfriend, I have worked throughout the weekends occasionally during my master, and my mood for travelling very rarely overcomes my desire to read through certain chapter in a textbook (in fact, my biggest entertainment is to watch my favorite series over youtube). So, as for daily activities, I think I can pull through a PhD life. So please mention anything else I should be wary of.
    I also would like to ask, when you are doing PhD research in a team, what do the other team members expect from you? Will your supervisor put a deadline for certain task given to you? I know that the answer may vary depending on region, but I don't care, I just want to hear as many experiences as possible because the place where I am going to do my PhD is abroad.
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  3. Jan 28, 2016 #2
    You're asking some very good and specific questions. Sadly, I don't think anybody here online can answer your questions. Why not? Because they really depend on your specific situation.

    For example, I had a supervisor that I saw only very irregularly, and we were fine like that. It means I had to work very independently. It was hard at times, but I think I highly preferred this approach. On the other hand, I know many students in the same department that have weekly meetings with their advisors, and whose advisor are really involved (and perhaps pushy). So will you have deadlines? How will you work in a team? Nobody knows until you start working in the group.
    Will you do frequent work at night or in the weekend? Again, you can't know. It happens a lot, but with a lot of supervisors, it doesn't happen at all.

    Then there's the question of country. In the US you will spend a lot of time with courses and qual exams. In continental Europe, you just start research immediately. If you are in Europe and already have an advisor, then the best thing is to meet up with your advisor and ask him/her all these questions. Maybe talk to some team members as well.
  4. Jan 28, 2016 #3
    Well, I have indicated in my post that I know the condition may vary between countries, that's why I would like you guys to share your own experience when you were pursuing PhD. I don't really know how in particular the environment in my next place will be, that's why I think it's wise to be as open as possible to any hands-on experience. Like, if you did work in weekends sometimes, what kind of work it was typically such that it forced you to work in the weekends? Are those online article telling story about how messed up a PhD students' life could be true in most cases? And probably the most important is, what is the typical reason that hampers a student to finish his PhD in time (three years normally, even in US where standard PhD duration is 5 years, the real research starts in the 3rd year)? In my current master program, the standard time is 2 years yet receiving your degree certificate well beyond two years since the start of your master is very common here. Only very few students who can finish in more or less 24 months, and I am one of such students.
  5. Jan 28, 2016 #4


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    It depends on what you make of it. It's your responsibility to take care of yourself and live your life. You can have a healthy work life balance if you make the effort to establish it. Most people realize that they are more productive if they are happy, so socializing and spending some time doing other things is actually a good thing. Most of the highly successful grad students I know are all very nice, down to earth people. They definitely have lives outside of work as well as other interests. They truly enjoy their research and give it their full attention when they are working.

    Your work schedule is very dependent on your advisor, the kind of work you do, and personal habits. It is also influenced by the departmental culture. People working in labs usually have more regular work hours (although people can stay in lab pretty late), but a lot of theorists I know are what I would call semi-nocturnal. It's not that they are not getting things done, they are just doing it at odd hours (for example one guy I worked with in undergrad told me his most productive hours were 12-3 am). Some advisors want you to be in the lab or your office everyday, others don't care as long as you are being productive. This also can depend on their travel schedule. Advisors who travel a lot are usually more hands off.

    From what I have observed, the proportion of students workint on the weekends seems to be tied to the departmental culture. In terms of my situation as a theorist, we generally do some work on the weekends (I have actually been going to my office for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday), but for the most part (at least in my case and the ones I'm aware of) it's because we want to, not because of any specific task we need to get done (theory is very open ended in that way). Experimentalists have to spend more time in the lab to get their work done so many will go in for at least a few hours on the weekends. Deadlines may be more stringent since you are working with other people. From what I have observed at least in my department, it seems most experimentalists spend some time in lab on the weekend.

    However, even though people work on weekends, the still usually make time to socialize and pursue other interests. My classmates often have house parties on the weekends where we will hang out together. Many people participate in activities involving music, volunteer work, sports, etc.
  6. Jan 29, 2016 #5
    One of the most untrue things I have ever heard about graduate school is the notion of "having no life". I spend quite a lot of time on some of my hobbies - I do have the occasional busy moments, but it's really not all that bad. Like others have mentioned, you need to be proactive about establishing time for your school/work and your personal life. I make it a habit of mine to finish all my homework at school as well as grading. I still have plenty of time to work in the lab, and I prefer to do reading and answering emails at home which I find enjoyable at those times. To be honest, so far I am finding graduate school much more enjoyable than undergraduate and I had a lot of fun during my undergraduate years. My piece of advice would be time management.
  7. Jan 29, 2016 #6
    Right. But it really depends from case to case. For example, perhaps you are somebody who only lives for work. Then you will of course have no time for hobbies since you don't want it. Or you may have a very demanding advisor. Or you are into experimental stuff and need to get your experiments done at exactly midnight. Etc. etc.
  8. Jan 29, 2016 #7
    I did too albeit many decades ago. As stressful as it was at times I have no regrets. I had plenty of time for extracurricular activities.

    The advisor is a wild card. But my experience is that a truly overbearing one is not all that common. Experimental physics (my background) is a little more regiment if you share equipment, seniority usually prevails in scheduling or if you are part of a large group you probably will have a pace set by the group. New grad students will usually start contributing by doing the necessary but more menial tasks associated with the group and help senior grads take data and might not get prime time for their own.
  9. Jan 29, 2016 #8
    Thanks everyone, I do want to hear as many stories as possible to anticipate how my PhD life will come out to be. Especially to @radium, I really appreciate your sharing in the difference between theoretical and experimental students. I didn't expect though that somebody will bring up this, but actually in during my PhD later, I will spend the first 6 month to master the computational method as well as the theory which are going to be used in the real experiments. From the 7th month on, my advisor will direct me into another lab in which his lab holds a collaboration work and here my work will be mostly experimental.

    I think one thing which is not yet answered is that what the common reason is for a PhD student not to be able to obtain his doctoral degree in time (in +- 3 years).
  10. Jan 29, 2016 #9


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    This varies from student to student. Some of the more common non-academic reasons for delays that I've seen:
    1. The student has a part-time job (outside of TA responsibilities). While this has its advantages (extra money, career skill building, etc.) one of its major disadvantages is that it can eat away at the time it takes to complete the PhD.
    2. Medical issues. Remember that the PhD will happen over several years. People can develop medical problems over that time that need to be figured out. I don't know that this is any more or less prevalent than in any other segment of the population, but remember graduate school can be a high stress environment.
    3. Pregnancy and maternity or paternity leave. Planned or not - it happens.
    4. An ineffective student-supervisor relationship. Sometimes this relationship can break down. Sometimes it's not great from the start. Either way, this can lead to behavior such as avoiding each other, misunderstandings about project goals, and in some cases the student dropping a project altogether and having to start on something else.
    5. Choice. Sometimes opportunities come up during graduate school that are worth pursuing: opportunity to travel, internships, etc.

    The academic reasons:
    1. The student struggles with the comprehensive or candidacy exam. Students can spend months preparing for these exams and if the first attempt does not go well and they have to wait six months to a year to repeat it - there isn't a lot else that gets done in that time.
    2. Availability of experimental equipment. Not all experimental equipment is readily available. Sometimes you have to wait for it to be ordered and get set up. Sometimes you have to book time on a telescope. And if something goes wrong or you don't get the results you're expecting then you could end up having to wait a lot longer to come back to it.
    3. A poorly defined project. It's not uncommon for students to struggle with this. Normally a good supervisor (or supervisory committee) can provide direction in such circumstances, when you couple a student who needs direction with a supervisor who prefers a "hands off" approach a lot of time can be wasted.
    4. Some students struggle with the big picture of their work. They spend weeks or even months on trivial things and this can easily eat up a lot of time.
  11. Jan 29, 2016 #10
    Hmm... point 4 in the academic reason. I think somehow I have gotten the taste of it during my master. In the middle of out project, things didn't go as expected due to the lack of brightness and coherence of our XUV lightsource and my progress somewhat got delayed for like 2 months. But thank you very much for the review.
  12. Jan 29, 2016 #11
    That's a pretty large range. very few will get out in 4yrs so expect 5+ years .

    A number of additional things come to mind some obvious some not.

    What most fear is finding your work published before you do so you have to start over. Although I think this is pretty rare.

    Other things are failure to solve some technical issues foreseen or not in a timely manner.

    Dumb mistakes.

    For experimentalist it might be an unfortunate accident as a fire that damages the equipment. or through no fault of your own or not you miss an opportunity to finish taking data because for example the equipment you are using is going to be upgraded.

    Then there are unforeseen distractions e.g., love or death in the family ,

    Lack of progress could lead to discouragement and drive is lost.

    The need to break away from your project to get a "fresh view" of a problem.

    Distracted by other projects in your lab that seem more interesting than yours.(beware of post doc trying to seduce to help them and get your name on the paper).

    Having to get an outside job because you lost financial support.

    Depending on a grant that isn't funded..
  13. Jan 29, 2016 #12
    I can already imagine how disastrous it would be if that were to happen.
    That's pretty much what I have experienced and described in post #10.
    I think I will be a bit safe on financial side because I will life on a scholarship during my PhD. I hope I will never encounter situations in which I will be required to spend excessive unintentional expenditure.
  14. Jan 29, 2016 #13


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    At my institution (in the U.S.) the average is between 5-6 years. Usually the experimentalists spend closer to 6 years since the projects take longer it seems. Basically, you can graduate when your advisor says you are ready.

    I do know of people who elected to stay another year to finish things they are working on/just wanted to spend a year (probably to publish more).
  15. Jan 29, 2016 #14


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    Yes, I also forgot the "unable to find a job" factor - some students stretch out the PhD for a while until they have another position to jump to. This only works for so long though because often departments will cut off funding.
  16. Jan 30, 2016 #15
    I plan to down the path of academic career. After PhD I want to get a Postdoc first before I can aim for a tenured position. I think postdoc is less competitive than industry, correct me if I am wrong.
  17. Jan 30, 2016 #16


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    I'm not too sure about that. There are a lot more jobs out in the world of "industry" than there are post-doctoral positions. There are also a lot more people competing for those positions, so I don't know how everything would come out on a relative scale. The thing is, you go from small number statistics to large number statistics.
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